When I first came to France, as an apprentice at La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine, my dreams jostled each other. A big one, aside from learning everything about French cuisine, was to get to know the country. To that end, I joined a goodwill organization that put me in touch with families in the country, who welcomed strangers. Our commonality: world peace.
Hopped on a Train
I had been in France for a month, and my head was swimming with the newness of it all. I had discovered that the promised “weekend off “ from my job as apprentice consisted of a day and a half, hardly much time to visit families throughout France. But I did find one close by, made a date, and, hopped on train. One hour later, I was in Normandy being greeted by a woman a few years older than myself.
ON RUE TATIN The Memoir
I tell the story of this meeting in my memoir, ON RUE TATIN, but to cut to the point here, after a day of helping move stones from one side of a giant garden to the other in the freezing cold, it was time to sit down for supper. This was a bowl of…potage, and it smelled like heaven.
Potage is a Many Splendored Dish
It turns out the word potage in ancient French times referred to anything from a hearty vegetable soup to duck with a cream sauce. What I found on my plate was the hearty vegetable soup version, which sent up aromas of fresh thyme and leeks, had flecks of red from beetroot, orange from sweet potato, and was otherwise entirely intriguing.
First Course, No Bread
It was our first/main course served without bread, which I later learned is an unwritten French table rule. No bread with soup of any kind. The bread came later, with the cheese and salad. I was instructed to drizzle olive oil on top and sprinkle a few croutons over it, then I followed my hosts’ lead and took a spoonful.
What a Way with Vegetables!
I have never looked back, for that potage was one of the best things I’d ever tasted, and I have made versions of it since. It is never the same because potage is a way to use the vegetables that won’t go anywhere else, ie. the bits and pieces that are gorgeously fresh yet not in significant quantity for a dedicated dish.
Simple, But You Can Make it More Complicated
Potage is the perfect solution and oh so simple to make, though it can be more complicated. You can melt butter and sauté the vegetables first; add meat or poultry broth instead of water; stir in crème fraiche or heavy cream instead of olive oil; sprinkle it with caviar instead of croutons; serve it from a porcelain bowl with a silver spoon.
Great Winter Through Spring
But really, potage is a simple, humble dish that satisfies and nourishes, comforts and soothes from winter through spring. To make it, follow the video, which doesn’t give you a recipe but many hints. First, a leek is important to potage, as is a starchy tuber like a sweet or regular starchy potato. Thyme – not too much – is obligatory as is bay leaf, each of which heightens the flavor of the vegetables. Finally, drizzling with extra virgin olive oil, and showering with minced herbs and even fresh garlic makes potage Pop!
You’re the Boss of You
So do make this now, when the evenings are chill and potage is exactly what everyone wants to eat! And if you want to serve bread alongside, well, you’re the boss of you!
Enjoy. Bon App.